- Dryden and the Problem of Freedom: The Republican Aftermath 1649–1680
The thesis for this ambitious book appears to promise much for the study of Dryden. David B. Haley argues that previous critics exaggerated the personal elements in Dryden’s verse and were too ready to assume that “literature transcends politics” (18). He believes that Dryden’s achievement as a public poet, undervalued in earlier studies, is considerable: “he was the first English poet after Shakespeare to reflect widely upon his own culture and to bring home to his audience the meaning of their historical experience” (18). Haley seeks to define this achievement through complicated analysis involving rhetorical tradition and political history. He stresses the deliberative “prudence of the classical orator” (19), characterized by “reflexivity”—defined as a Hegelian principle of self-consciousness: “by becoming aware of your prejuidices . . . you transcend them and rejoin the larger movement of society, history, or Absolute Idea toward its self-realization” (14).
Haley’s approach produces some new interpretations of Dryden’s religious and political beliefs. But his conclusions are unconvincing. He bases his argument on a largely speculative claim that the Interregnum (1649–1660) produced “the matrix of Dryden’s public poetry” (30), which consists primarily of Presbyterianism and an admiration for Cromwell. Lacking hard evidence, Haley postulates a lifelong set of attitudes based on Presbyterianism that Dryden “no doubt . . . would have learned,” including rather specific beliefs, such as a “zeal for a reformed church that would include the entire Christian community” (34). Haley also imagines [End Page 368] actions: after noting that Dr. Busby of Westminster School made his students, among whom was Dryden, pray for the king at his execution, he conjectures that Dryden, “the contumacious young Puritan . . . may well have preferred the text chosen by his contemporary Samuel Pepys for the occasion: ‘And the memory of the wicked shall rot’” (43).
The evidence Haley offers for the mere possibility of such a reaction consists mainly of tenuous interpretations of a few phrases in Dryden’s early poems, such as “Upon the Death of the Lord Hastings,” where the “telltale word ‘Discipline’” (41) directs Haley to Puritanism. He interprets Dryden’s references to rebellion as directed, not to English rebellion, but to Biblical analogies that, to Haley, suggest Dryden’s sympathy for the suffering of “a nation sick unto death” (43) rather for the king. But Haley’s readings, here and throughout the book, are not persuasive. He makes little attempt to show a connection between the lines discussed and the context he uses to interpret them, shows inadequate awareness of the context of the poem itself, and often merely dismisses or ignores other interpretations.
On this weak foundation, Haley builds a series of radical arguments about Dryden’s political and religious views. For example, Haley believes that Religio Laici shows the poet’s Anglicanism to be “equivocal” (103) and covertly contains “radical dissent” (104). He argues deconstructively that Dryden could not believe the doctrines that he claims to believe, finding it “difficult to imagine what elements of Anglican discipline or doctrine could have appealed to Dryden” (102). His difficulty arises because he thinks those Anglican arguments, such as Dryden’s views on the role of reason in interpreting scripture, to be faulty. A Roman Catholic controversialist of Dryden’s time would probably agree with Haley, but as Phillip Harth’s Contexts of Dryden’s Thought (1968) demonstrates, the doctrines Dryden propounds represent “an articulate expression of the Anglican via media” (224). Hayley dismisses Dryden’s statements when they do not fit his thesis. Thus, he surmises that “his partisan responsibility as a Tory obliged him to denounce all dissent from the Church of England as politically seditious, a task abhorrent to his Puritan soul” (105).
When he turns to the political poems, Haley continues to construct his secret history of the poet, trying to show that his stated views are not his real beliefs. Once again, he begins with an imagined event: “Lacking evidence of Dryden’s response to events, I have...